Humanitarian disaster looms in Ethiopia as Tigray crisis escalates

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Human Rights Watch warned on Friday that a humanitarian disaster was looming in Ethiopia, urging the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and Tigray regional authorities to protect people and property at risk from the fighting.

The rights group said amid credible reports of increasing casualties, the authorities on both sides should facilitate access for humanitarian groups, stop interrupting essential services, and immediately restore communication services in the region.

Early on November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian government began military operations in Tigray, one of the country’s semi-autonomous regions, in what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said was a response to an attack on a federal military base by the ruling party in the region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF led the former coalition that ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in April 2018.

“Tight restrictions on access for aid agencies and communications mean that millions of people in Tigray affected by the fighting may be at grave risk,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Federal and regional authorities should respect the right to life and take all necessary measures to assist and protect the population.”

The fighting follows a year of growing tensions between the federal government and the Tigray authorities. The situation worsened after the federal government reconfigured the ruling coalition, which was responsible for serious human rights abuses, into a single party and postponed highly anticipated national elections, citing Covid-19-related health risks. Several opposition parties condemned the decision, including the TPLF, which held its own regional elections in September, in defiance of the federal government’s decision.

Following the alleged attack on the federal military base, phone and internet communications were swiftly cut in the region, and the federal government soon after announced a round of airstrikes in areas around the regional capital, Mekelle. By November 10, more than 14,000 Ethiopian refugees,half of whom were children, had crossed the border into Sudan – a number humanitarian agencies expect could swell in the coming days if the fighting continues.

Hundreds of people were also reportedly killed and injured on November 9 in an incident around Mai Kadra, in western Tigray where much of the fighting has occurred. Authorities on both sides need to protect the population from the fighting, facilitate immediate and unhindered access to health and aid workers to help all those in need, and conduct an impartial investigation into the incident, Human Rights Watch said.

Six humanitarian agencies reported that the movement restrictions and the communication shutdown were significantly hampering their activities, including tending to those wounded and killed in the fighting.

Access into Tigray is blocked, including by road and air, while the border with Sudan remains partially closed, based on reports by the media and humanitarian agencies. Prior to the outbreak of fighting, reports highlighted that food and fuel were already in short supply, with over 600,000 people relying on food aid to survive. The region is also home to 100,000 internally displaced people and 96,000 Eritrean refugees. Nearly 44 percent of those living in refugee camps are children.

Humanitarian reports on the situation in Tigray also highlight that the closure of banks and restrictions on essential goods such as food, water, fuel, electricity, and medical supplies risk compounding the suffering of a population already in need.

Under international human rights law, the Ethiopian government bears the primary responsibility to meet the needs of people on its territory. Lifting broad restrictions on services and granting humanitarian agencies access is essential to provide necessary aid to affected populations and avert a looming humanitarian crisis, Human Rights Watch said. The Tigray regional authorities are also responsible for addressing the needs of people under their effective control.

While the phone and internet shutdown has made it difficult for journalists and aid workers to document and confirm reports of the situation on the ground, Ethiopians outside the region have also been cut off from their relatives in Tigray.

Under Abiy’s administration, phone and network shutdowns have become routine during social and political unrest, including in the Oromia region, where the government has engaged in counterinsurgency operations within the last year. The current military action follows recurrent episodes of violence and unrest that have flared up throughout the country since Abiy took office in 2018, leading to the displacement of nearly two million people since the start of 2020 alone.

There are concerns that the federal government’s accusations and current actions in Tigray may increase the discrimination, hostility, or violence toward ordinary Tigrayans, including those with perceived connections to the TPLF, as was already the case in the lead-up to Abiy taking office.

Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that Tigrayan residents elsewhere in the country have been suspended from their jobs and prevented from flying externally as fighting escalates in Tigray. One ethnic Tigrayan civil servant who was ordered to stay home, said, “We asked our bosses to tell us how many days they expected us to sit at home and why. They keep saying they don’t know the reason, but accepted higher instructions from their bosses.”

International law prohibits discrimination, unjustified interference with the right to privacy, degrading treatment, and violations of the right to physical integrity. Ethiopian authorities should push back against language and refrain from imposing measures that could fuel intolerance and risk alienating Tigrayans, Human Rights Watch said.

“Federal and regional officials should caution against any violence, discrimination, or hostility against Tigrayans or any other group,” Bader said. “Ethiopia’s partners should also emphasize that credible investigations into serious crimes and meaningful accountability would go a long way to reestablishing trust and addressing past and ongoing harm.”

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